Is the New Honda Insight the Perfect Honda Hybrid Two Decades Too Late?

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
is the new honda insight the perfect honda hybrid two decades too late

Attractive. Well received. A winner on paper. Technologically advanced. Badged with a logo that keeps producing record sales numbers.

One would assume that this is all that’s needed for the Honda Insight to be a raging marketplace success, at least in 1999.

1999 this is most certainly not, which highlights one glaring problem: the 2019 Insight is an attractive, well-received, impressive-on-paper, technologically-advanced Honda sedan.

Sedan. Sedan? Yes, sedan.

To be fair to the first-generation Honda Insight, there was never any intention for the Honda hybrid of late 1999 to become a volume seller. There was the two-seat nature, the single-minded focus on fuel economy, the cost impact of an aluminum structure, and the oddball wheel skirts.

Still, the roughly 14,000 Insights sold in the U.S. during the first-gen’s tenure shows how far Honda was from the mainstream.

By the time the second Insight arrived in 2009, America’s hybrid market bore no resemblance to the market the Insight created nearly a decade prior. It wasn’t just a far more successful version of its direct rival, the Toyota Prius, which was 25 times more common in 2009 than in 2000, that limited the second Insight’s success. There were also rivals such as Honda’s own Civic Hybrid and hybrid variants of popular cars such as the Toyota Camry. The mere existence of competitors curtailed second-generation Insight popularity; so too did the Insight’s incapacity to live up to the Toyota Prius, both on paper and on the road.

Honda sold only 73,000 copies of the second-gen Insight in the U.S. between 2009 and 2017, when leftovers were still leaving showrooms. Over 1 million copies of the core Prius sold during the same timeframe.

But what if the second-gen Insight – rather than being unattractive, critically dismissed, a loser on paper and technologically rather ordinary – was a generally handsome, well-regarded, Prius-baiting four-door?

In that case, Honda would have sold far more than 73,000 Insights, and Toyota likely wouldn’t have sold more than 1 million Prii.

Fast forward to the latter stages of 2018, however, and the new Insight’s quality components and bodywork and $23,725 price point (the Prius starts at $25,640) may not be enough to overcome major anti-car headwinds.

Look to the latest Prius’s own fall from grace as an example of what the new Insight might encounter. The latest (admittedly stylistically-challenged) Prius is by all accounts the best Prius. Yet U.S. Prius volume has fallen by more than half since 2013.

Honda hasn’t declared exactly how many Insights the company plans to sell in the U.S. AutoPacific forecasts 29,000 Insight sales in the U.S. in 2019, 38-percent more than the second-generation Insight managed at its peak but less than half the figure the Prius produced last year.

It won’t be easy to reach even those modest expectations. Honda’s latest Accord is likewise a vastly improved sedan, but Honda is selling 14-percent fewer new Accords than the company sold old Accords a year ago. In fact, Honda is on track for 277,000 Accord sales in 2018, 111,000 fewer Accords than Honda sold in 2014 and the lowest Accord total since 2011.

The Insight is entering a market where its most direct rival is fading and where its firmly-established big brother is losing momentum. Honda finally figured out what the Insight should be, yet the prevailing climate is producing decidedly unfavorable conditions.

Or, could it be that the Insight’s slippery aerodynamics will pay no mind to the headwinds?

[Images: Honda]

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  • Geozinger Geozinger on Jun 27, 2018

    I'm not a real fan of recent Honda styling, but I guess the truly well-designed cars of the 80's are never going to return. However, this is by far the best looking car of the entire line. Honda really should have made this the standard Civic and made the new boy-racer Civic the Civic GT or something equally different. But, judging by recent trends, this may be another Honda Hybrid Mistake(TM), again misjudging the market for hybrids and sedans. I agree with others, this really should have been a CUV.

  • Svan Svan on Sep 12, 2019

    Long time reader. Came here to say I bought one of these, a Canadian- spec touring model. The drive is very good, the acceleration not memorable but very sufficient. Very good handling and feel. Non-Jetsons interior with a genuine volume knob. Hooray for all that. Plus it looks nothing like the gonzo civics. The white interior sure looks nice but I would get tired of it quick. If this were a CUV there is no chance I would have bought it. A hatch would have been good but it turns out the trunk is enormous. Trade off, it gets a very good sound system given the speaker placement in the rear window.

  • Cprescott I remember when Fords were affordable.
  • Cprescott As a once very LOYAL FORD buyer, I had to replace my 22 year old Ford (bought new in 1997) once it finally started to have problems at 180k miles. I would have gladly purchased something like this from Ford but they abandoned me as a car buyer. Oddly, Hyundai still builds cars in a variety of flavors so I became a customer of theirs and am very happy. Likely will consider another once this one gets up in mileage.
  • SCE to AUX A friend once struck a mounted tire that was laying flat in the middle of her lane on the PA Turnpike. She was in a low late-90s Grand Prix, and the impact destroyed the facia, core support, radiators, oil pan, transmission, subframe, and suspension. They fixed it all.
  • Dukeisduke Lol, it's not exactly a Chevrolet SS with Holden badging.
  • Dukeisduke Years ago, I was driving southbound along North Central Expressway (south of Mockingbird Lane, for locals), and watched a tire and wheel fall out of the bed of a pickup (no tailgate), bounce along, then centerpunch the front end of a Honda Accord. It wasn't pretty.